Often it’s the little things coming out of Washington, obscured by the big, scary headlines, that matter most in the long run. Items that scarcely make the news, or fail to attract your attention, or once noticed seem trivial, may carry consequences that endure long after the latest front-page crisis has passed. They may, in fact, signal fundamental changes in Washington’s priorities and policies that could even face opposition, if only we paid attention.

Take the current case of an unprecedented, unkind, under-the-radar cut in the State Department’s budget for the Fulbright Program, the venerable 68-year-old operation that annually arranges for thousands of educators, students, and researchers to be exchanged between the United States and at least 155 other countries. As Washington increasingly comes to rely on the “forward projection” of military force to maintain its global position, the Fulbright Program may be the last vestige of an earlier, more democratic, equitable, and generous America that enjoyed a certain moral and intellectual standing in the world. Yet, long advertised by the U.S. government as “the flagship international educational exchange program" of American cultural diplomacy, it is now in the path of the State Department’s torpedoes.

Right now, all over the world, former Fulbright scholars like me (Norway, 2012) are raising the alarm, trying to persuade Congress to stand by one of its best creations, passed by unanimous bipartisan consent of the Senate and signed into law by President Truman in 1946. Alumni of the Fulbright Program number more than 325,000, including more than 123,000 Americans.  Among Fulbright alums are 53 from 13 different countries who have won a Nobel Prize, 28 MacArthur Foundation fellows, 80 winners of the Pulitzer Prize, 29 who have served as the head of state or government, and at least one, lunar geologist Harrison Schmitt (Norway, 1957), who walked on the moon — not to mention the hundreds of thousands who returned to their countries with greater understanding and respect for others and a desire to get along.  Check the roster of any institution working for peace around the world and you’re almost certain to find Fulbright alums whose career choices were shaped by international exchange.  What’s not to admire about such a program?

Yet the Fulbright budget, which falls under the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), seems to be on the chopping block. The proposed cut amounts to chump change in Washington, only $30.5 million. But the unexpected reduction from a $234.7 million budget this year to $204.2 million in 2015 represents 13% of what Fulbright gets. For such a relatively small-budget program, that’s a big chunk. No one in the know will say just where the cuts are going to fall, but the most likely target could be “old Europe,” and the worldwide result is likely to be a dramatic drop from 8,000 to fewer than 6,000 in the number of applicants who receive the already exceedingly modest grants.

For the U.S., that’s not a saving, it’s a foolish blunder. Only about 1% of American college students ever study abroad. Fewer than 20% speak more than one language — a figure that includes immigrants for whom English comes second or third — but all students benefit from the presence of international “Fulbrighters” on their campuses and the return of their own professors and grad students from study and teaching in other countries. Those Fulbrighters chosen according to standards of academic excellence may seem to be an elite group, but their presence on campuses from North Dakota State to Notre Dame is thoroughly democratic. Their knowledge gained abroad, unlike money in our economy, trickles down and spreads out.

Cutting the Fulbright budget also sends a dangerous message to allies around the world: that the U.S. is not truly committed to its biggest and best international exchange program.  That news comes as a kick in the teeth to 50 partner countries that have established Fulbright commissions of their own to fund their share, or more than their share, of the mutual exchange. (Norway, for one, funds 70% of it.) What are good friends to make of  “cultural diplomacy” like this?

Developing a Twitter-Worthy Worldview

Given what the program achieves, and what it contributes to American prestige abroad, the budget cut is a terrible idea, but the scheme behind it is worse. It hinges on the difference between thinking long and thinking short. With decades of experience, the Fulbright Program clearly welcomes the positive effects of the regular exchange of scholars and educators of proven excellence on broad issues of cultural diplomacy like peace, the progress of democracy, and economic cooperation over time. But it’s not so heedless of history as to think it can determine those outcomes.

The State Department, on the other hand, is headed largely by short-term political appointees, many without specialized experience, most fixated on their own competitive careers. Their thinking leans quite naturally toward the quick fix consistent with an alarmist and historically suspect worldview, quite possibly derived from CNN, inscribed in the justification of the federal budget proposed for 2015: “Global events and trends now start, spread, and shape countries in an instant.” For them, history now only happens on the fast track.

Given this Twitter-worthy worldview, the laggard State Department had to make some “strategic shifts,” according to Susan Pittman, a spokesperson for State’s ECA, the office now responsible for all of America’s “cultural diplomacy.” She claimed the shifts had to be made “in order to be able to take a different angle of doing some short-term targeted programs” in instantaneous crises like that now occurring in Ukraine. “To that end,” Pittman said, “there was the desire to be able to redistribute things.”

What the State Department desires to redistribute is Fulbright funding. It can’t kill the program, but it can starve it. Ukraine, however, is a bad example to cite as a target for redistributed fast-action funds, since the Fulbright Program, thinking long, has been operating in Ukraine for all 23 years of that country’s independence, exchanging about 1,200 scholars and educators. The spokesperson did not seem to know that, or chose not to mention it. Or perhaps Ukraine sprang to mind because her brand-new boss, Evan Ryan, a former special assistant to Vice President Biden and now — as if by magic — assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, happens to be married to President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who had just appeared on all the Sunday talk shows speaking about… you guessed it: Ukraine. Well, I’m just guessing, too, but such things happen in the crowded and intimate little space inside Washington’s Beltway.

Anyway, the State Department actually has its eye on other prizes. In fact, the “strategic shifts” in State Department programming coincide miraculously well with the Obama administration’s militarized “pivots” in foreign policy. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs will spend $10 million in Southeast Asia and $20 million in Africa on brand new quick-fix programs to “increase outreach” to “young leaders… shaping the… future.” That’s $30 million drawn from the Fulbright budget and dispatched instead to follow the ships, drones, Navy SEALs, and other Special Forces types to unpublicized points in Asia (for the containment of China) and Africa (for who knows what).

These new ECA programs speak of “partnership,” but they are not like the Fulbright Program’s mutual exchanges. They are unilateral projects whose aim is to identify and cultivate the locals we can do business with in countries that may or may not welcome our outreach, or our handpicked young leaders either. Recall that Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led the 2012 coup that overthrew the elected government of Mali, started a war, and destabilized a vast region of Africa, was selected and trained in the United States under another State Department scheme: the International Military Education and Training program.

The ECA also plans to spend $2.5 million next year in Vietnam on what seems to be a consolation prize: a new American Fulbright University, named in honor of Senator J. William Fulbright who created the flagship program that bears his name and ushered it through Congress back in 1946.  Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, was then a first-term senator whose experience as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford had fostered his international perspective. He went on to spend 30 years in the Senate, becoming the longest serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the twentieth century’s most influential senators. Yet if the State Department has its way, the proposed university to be named in his honor will be paid for by money cut from the international exchange program he considered his most important achievement.

In fact, there’s no good reason why the ECA budget should be balanced on the back of the Fulbright Program in the first place. Overall, the federal budget for international exchange programs will actually increase by 1.6% in 2015, to a proposed $577.9 million, while the total proposed budget for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will be $46.2 billion.

Surely that’s money enough to fully fund the Fulbright Program as well as those short-term, shortsighted, potentially explosive unilateral ones. So you have to ask: Why, with all those billions in pocket, must $30 million be snatched from Fulbright and its priceless reputation discounted?

At her confirmation hearing, Evan Ryan gave the game away, signaling to the senators that she knows perfectly well what she’s doing. She assured them that her office was “working closely with regional bureaus to ensure exchange programs are in line with U.S. foreign policy priorities and that they meet the needs of the changing global landscape.”

Soldiers, Not Scholars

There, of course, is the catch.  The Fulbright Program was never meant to be a tool of foreign policy, much less a tactic of military intervention.  It was and still is “designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”  Senator Fulbright himself thought Americans had the most to learn.  Asked near the end of his life what he had intended by the exchange program, he said, “Aw, hell, I just wanted to educate these goddam ignorant Americans!”

In the aftermath of World War II, he hoped that both the educational and humanizing effects of an international exchange program would promote peace and that within peace would be found authentic security for everyone.  At the time, all nations counted and the world was round.

Now the landscape has shifted, and the globe has tilted to match the slant of America’s exceptional (and mostly classified) interests, as well as a version of “national security” dependent upon secrecy, not exchange, and war, not peace.  You can see how the land lies today by tracing the dispersal of U.S. troops around that badly bashed and lopsided globe or tracking the itinerary of President Obama, just back from an Asian trip that included a new agreement extending the reach of soldiers, not scholars.

You can search hard and find little trace of those quaint old notions of international understanding and peace on the American agenda. Consider it a sign of the times that a president who, from his Nobel acceptance speech putting in a good word for war to his surges in Afghanistan to the “kill list” he regularly mulls over in the White House, has hardly been a Nobel Prize-quality executive, yet must still repeatedly defend himself against charges that he is too slow and far too wussy to go to war, perhaps as a result of his own “un-American” international childhood.

This is scarcely the moment for Washington to knock one nickel off its budget for international exchange.  Longstanding educational partners of the U.S. in Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and elsewhere now have other excellent opportunities for intellectual, scientific, and artistic exchange.  Meanwhile, the dysfunctional, militarized, pistol-packin’ United States has lost much of its global allure. It was precisely this sort of isolation from the ideas and experiences of other cultures — self-imposed by our own overweening ignorance — that Fulbright feared. In his classic book The Arrogance of Power, published in 1966 in the midst of another unnecessary American war, he warned against the historic tendency of powerful nations to mistake military might for moral and intellectual strength and, by overreaching in an attempt to impose their views upon the world, to bring themselves to ruin.

Fulbright was hopeful that the United States might avoid this trap by “finding the wisdom to match her power,” but he was not confident because, as he wrote,  “the wisdom required is greater wisdom than any great nation has ever shown before.”  It is certainly greater than the wisdom in evidence in Washington today.

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter, and War Is Not Over When It’s Over, among other books, and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project (Haymarket, 2013). She encourages interested readers to check out the website http://www.savefulbright.org.

Copyright 2014 Ann Jones

Washington’s Pivot to Ignorance

Congress surely meant to do the right thing when, in the fall of 2008, it passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). The law was designed to protect kids worldwide from being forced to fight the wars of Big Men. From then on, any country that coerced children into becoming soldiers was supposed to lose all U.S. military aid.

It turned out, however, that Congress — in its rare moment of concern for the next generation — had it all wrong. In its greater wisdom, the White House found countries like Chad and Yemen so vital to the national interest of the United States that it preferred to overlook what happened to the children in their midst.

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As required by CSPA, this year the State Department once again listed 10 countries that use child soldiers: Burma (Myanmar), the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  Seven of them were scheduled to receive millions of dollars in U.S. military aid as well as what’s called “U.S. Foreign Military Financing.”  That’s a shell game aimed at supporting the Pentagon and American weapons makers by handing millions of taxpayer dollars over to such dodgy “allies,” who must then turn around and buy “services” from the Pentagon or “materiel” from the usual merchants of death. You know the crowd: Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, and so on.

Here was a chance for Washington to teach a set of countries to cherish their young people, not lead them to the slaughter. But in October, as it has done every year since CSPA became law, the White House again granted whole or partial “waivers” to five countries on the State Department’s “do not aid” list: Chad, South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.

Too bad for the young — and the future — of those countries.  But look at it this way: Why should Washington help the children of Sudan or Yemen escape war when it spares no expense right here at home to press our own impressionable, idealistic, ambitious American kids into military “service”?

It should be no secret that the United States has the biggest, most efficiently organized, most effective system for recruiting child soldiers in the world.  With uncharacteristic modesty, however, the Pentagon doesn’t call it that.  Its term is “youth development program.” 

Pushed by multiple high-powered, highly paid public relations and advertising firms under contract to the Department of Defense, the program is a many splendored thing. Its major public face is the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps or JROTC. 

What makes this child-soldier recruiting program so striking is that the Pentagon carries it out in plain sight in hundreds and hundreds of private, military, and public high schools across the U.S.

Unlike the notorious West African warlords Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor (both brought before international tribunals on charges of war crimes), the Pentagon doesn’t actually kidnap children and drag them bodily into battle.  It seeks instead to make its young “cadets” what John Stuart Mill once termed “willing slaves,” so taken in by the master’s script that they accept their parts with a gusto that passes for personal choice. To that end, JROTC works on their not-yet-fully-developed minds, instilling what the program’s textbooks call “patriotism” and “leadership,” as well as a reflexive attention to authoritarian commands.

The scheme is much more sophisticated — so much more “civilized” — than any ever devised in Liberia or Sierra Leone, and it works.  The result is the same, however: kids get swept into soldiering, a job they will not be free to leave, and in the course of which they may be forced to commit spirit-breaking atrocities. When they start to complain or crack under pressure, in the U.S. as in West Africa, out come the drugs.

The JROTC program, still spreading in high schools across the country, costs U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.  It has cost some unknown number of taxpayers their children.

The Acne and Braces Brigades

I first stumbled upon JROTC kids a few years ago at a Veterans Day parade in Boston. Before it got underway, I wandered among the uniformed groups taking their places along the Boston Common. There were some old geezers sporting the banners of their American Legion posts, a few high school bands, and some sharp young men in smart dress uniforms: greater Boston’s military recruiters.

Then there were the kids.  The acne and braces brigades, 14- and 15-year-olds in military uniforms carrying rifles against their shoulders.  Some of the girl groups sported snazzy white gloves.

Far too many such groups, with far too many underage children, stretched the length of Boston Common.  They represented all branches of the military and many different local communities, though almost all of them were brown or black in hue: African Americans, Hispanics, the children of immigrants from Vietnam and other points South. Just last month in New York City, I watched similarly color-coded JROTC squads march up Fifth Avenue on Veterans’ Day.  One thing JROTC is not is a rainbow coalition.

In Boston, I asked a 14-year-old boy why he had joined JROTC.  He wore a junior Army uniform and toted a rifle nearly as big as himself. He said, “My dad, he left us, and my mom, she works two jobs, and when she gets home, well, she’s not big on structure. But they told us at school you gotta have a lot of structure if you want to get somewhere.  So I guess you could say I joined up for that.”

A group of girls, all Army JROTC members, told me they took classes with the boys but had their own all-girl (all-black) drill team that competed against others as far away as New Jersey. They showed me their medals and invited me to their high school to see their trophies.  They, too, were 14 or 15. They jumped up and down like the enthusiastic young teens they were as we talked. One said, “I never got no prizes before.”

Their excitement took me back. When I was their age, growing up in the Midwest, I rose before daybreak to march around a football field and practice close formation maneuvers in the dark before the school day began.  Nothing would have kept me from that “structure,” that “drill,” that “team,” but I was in a marching band and the weapon I carried was a clarinet.  JROTC has entrapped that eternal youthful yearning to be part of something bigger and more important than one’s own pitiful, neglected, acne-spattered self. JROTC captures youthful idealism and ambition, twists it, trains it, arms it, and sets it on the path to war.

A Little History

The U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was conceived as part of the National Defense Act of 1916 in the midst of World War I. In the aftermath of that war, however, only six high schools took up the military’s offer of equipment and instructors. A senior version of ROTC, was made compulsory on many state college and university campuses, despite the then-controversial question of whether the government could compel students to take military training.

By 1961, ROTC had become an optional program, popular at some schools, but unwelcome on others.  It soon disappeared altogether from the campuses of many elite colleges and progressive state universities, pushed out by protest against the war in Vietnam and pulled out by the Pentagon, which insisted on maintaining discriminatory policies (especially regarding sexual preference and gender) outlawed in university codes of conduct. When it gave up “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011 and offered a menu of substantial research grants for such institutions, elite universities like Harvard and Yale welcomed the military back with unbecoming deference.

During ROTC’s exile from such institutions, however, it put down roots on college campuses in states that made no fuss about discrimination, while the Pentagon expanded its recruitment program in high schools. Almost half a century after Army JROTC was established, the Reserve Officers Training Corps Vitalization Act of 1964 opened such junior training to all branches of the military. What’s more, the number of JROTC units nationwide, previously capped at 1,200, climbed rapidly until 2001, when the very idea of imposing limits on the program disappeared.

The reason was clear enough. In 1973, the Nixon administration discarded the draft in favor of a standing professional “all-volunteer” army.  But where were those professionals to be found?  And how exactly were they to be persuaded to “volunteer”? Since World War II, ROTC programs at institutions of higher education had provided about 60% of commissioned officers. But an army needs foot soldiers.

Officially, the Pentagon claims that JROTC is not a recruiting program. Privately, it never considered it to be anything else. Army JROTC now describes itself as having “evolved from a source of enlisted recruits and officer candidates to a citizenship program devoted to the moral, physical, and educational uplift of American youth.” Yet former Defense Secretary William Cohen, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in 2000, named JROTC “one of the best recruiting devices that we could have.” 

With that unacknowledged mission in hand, the Pentagon pushed for a goal first advanced in 1991 by Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: the establishment of 3,500 JROTC units to “uplift” students in high schools nationwide.  The plan was to expand into “educationally and economically deprived areas.”  The shoddy schools of the inner cities, the rust belt, the deep South, and Texas became rich hunting grounds.  By the start of 2013, the Army alone was recycling 4,000 retired officers to run its programs in 1,731 high schools. All together, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine JROTC units now flourish in 3,402 high schools nationwide — 65% of them in the South — with a total enrollment of 557,129 kids.

Getting With the Program

Here’s how the program works. The Department of Defense spends several hundred million dollars — $365 million in 2013 — to provide uniforms, Pentagon-approved textbooks, and equipment to JROTC, as well as part of the instructors’ salaries.  Those instructors, assigned by the military (not the schools), are retired officers. They continue to collect federal retirement pay, even though the schools are required to cover their salaries at levels they would receive on active duty.  The military then reimburses the school for about half of that hefty pay, but the school is still out a bundle.

Ten years ago, the American Friends Service Committee found that the true cost of JROTC programs to local school districts was “often much higher — in some cases more than double — the cost claimed by the Department of Defense.”  In 2004, local school districts were shelling out “more than $222 million in personnel costs alone.”

Several principals who spoke to me about the program praised the Pentagon for subsidizing the school budget, but in this matter they evidently don’t grasp their own school finances. The fact is that public schools offering JROTC programs actually subsidize the Pentagon’s recruitment drive. In fact, a JROTC class costs schools (and taxpayers) significantly more than would a regular physical education or American history course — for both of which it is often considered a suitable substitute.

Local schools have no control over the Pentagon’s prescribed JROTC curricula, which are inherently biased toward militarism. Many school systems simply adopt JROTC programs without so much as a peek at what the students will be taught. The American Friends Service Committee, Veterans for Peace, and other civic groups have compiled evidence that these classes are not only more costly than regular school courses, but also inferior in quality.

What else but inferior quality might be expected from self-serving textbooks written by competing branches of the military and used by retired military men with no teaching qualifications or experience?  For one thing, neither the texts nor the instructors teach the sort of critical thinking central to the best school curricula today. Instead, they inculcate obedience to authority, inspire fear of “enemies,” and advance the primacy of military might in American foreign policy.

Civic groups have raised a number of other objections to JROTC, ranging from discriminatory practices — against gays, immigrants, and Muslims, for example — to dangerous ones, such as bringing guns into schools (of all places).  Some units even set up shooting ranges where automatic rifles and live ammunition are used.  JROTC embellishes the dangerous mystique of such weapons, making them objects to covet, embrace, and jump at the chance to use.

In its own defense, the program publicizes a selling point widely accepted across the United States: that it provides “structure,” keeps kids from dropping out of school, and turns boys (and now girls) of “troubled” background into “men” who, without JROTC to save them (and the rest of us from them), would become junkies or criminals or worse. Colin Powell, the first ROTC grad ever to rise to the military’s top job, peddled just this line in his memoir My American Journey. “Inner-city kids,” he wrote, “many from broken homes, [find] stability and role models in Junior ROTC.”

No evidence exists to prove these claims, however, apart from student testimonials like that offered by the 14-year-old who told me he joined up for “structure.”  That kids (and their parents) fall for this sales pitch is a measure of their own limited options. The great majority of students find better, more life-affirming “structure” in school itself through academic courses, sports, choirs, bands, science or language clubs, internships — you name it — in schools where such opportunities exist.  Yet it is precisely in schools with such programs that administrators, teachers, parents, and kids working together are most likely to succeed in keeping JROTC out.  It is left to the “economically and educationally deprived” school systems targeted by the Pentagon to cut such “frills” and blow their budgets on a colonel or two who can offer students in need of “stability and role models” a promising, though perhaps very short, future as soldiers.

School Days

In one such Boston inner city school, predominantly black, I sat in on JROTC classes where kids watched endless films of soldiers on parade, then had a go at it themselves in the school gym, rifles in hand.  (I have to admit that they could march far better than squads of the Afghan National Army, which I’ve also observed, but is that something to be proud of?) Since those classes often seemed to consist of hanging out, students had lots of time to chat with the Army recruiter whose desk was conveniently located in the JROTC classroom.

They chatted with me, too.  A 16-year-old African American girl, who was first in her class and had already signed up for the Army, told me she would make the military her career.  Her instructor — a white colonel she regarded as the father she never had at home — had led the class to believe that “our war” would go on for a very long time, or as he put it, “until we’ve killed every last Muslim on Earth.” She wanted to help save America by devoting her life to that “big job ahead.”

Stunned, I blurted out, “But what about Malcolm X?”  He grew up in Boston and a boulevard not far from the school was named in his honor. “Wasn’t he a Muslim?” I asked.

“Oh no, ma’am,” she said.  “Malcolm X was an American.”

A senior boy, who had also signed up with the recruiter, wanted to escape the violence of city streets.  He joined up shortly after one of his best friends, caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s fight, was killed in a convenience store just down the block from the school.  He told me, “I’ve got no future here.  I might as well be in Afghanistan.”  He thought his chances of survival would be better there, but he worried about the fact that he had to finish high school before reporting for “duty.”  He said, “I just hope I can make it to the war.”

What kind of school system gives boys and girls such “choices”?  What kind of country?

What goes on in schools in your town?  Isn’t it time you found out?

TomDispatch regular Ann Jones is the author of a new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. (Jeremy Scahill just chose it as his favorite book of 2013.)  Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over. Her website is annjonesonline.com.

Copyright 2013 Ann Jones

America’s Child Soldiers

[The text of this piece is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Ann Jones's new book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars — The Untold Story, just published by Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books]

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized.  Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

Once stabilized again, those critical patients who survived would be taken by ambulance a short distance back to Ramstein, where a C-17 waited to fly them across the Atlantic to Dover Air Base in Delaware. There, tall, multilayered ambulances awaited the wounded for the last leg of their many-thousand-mile journey to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. or the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, where, depending upon their injuries, they might remain for a year or two, or more.

Now, we are in Germany, halfway home.  This evening, the ambulance from LRMC heading for the flight line at Ramstein will be full of critical-care patients, so I leave the hospital early and board the plane to watch the medical teams bring them aboard.  They’ve done this drill many times a week since the start of the Afghan War.  They are practiced, efficient, and fast, and so we are soon in the air again. This time, with a full load.

Two rows of double bunks flank an aisle down the center of the C-17, all occupied by men tucked under homemade patchwork quilts emblazoned with flags and eagles, the handiwork of patriotic American women. Along the walls of the fuselage, on straight-backed seats of nylon mesh, sit the ambulatory casualities from the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF), the holding ward for noncritical patients just off the flight line at Ramstein.

At the back of the plane, slung between stanchions, are four litters with critical care patients, and there among them is the same three-man CCAT (Critical Care Air Transport) team I accompanied on the flight from Afghanistan. They’ve been back and forth to Bagram again since then, but here they are in fresh brown insulated coveralls, clean shaven, calm, cordial, the doctor busy making notes on a clipboard, the nurse and the respiratory therapist checking the monitors and machines on the SMEEDs. (A SMEED, or Special Medical Emergency Evacuation Device, is a raised aluminum table affixed to a patient’s gurney.) Designed to bridge the patient’s lower legs, a SMEED is now often used in the evacuation of soldiers who don’t have any.

Here again is Marine Sergeant Wilkins, just as he was on the flight from Afghanistan: unconscious, sedated, intubated, and encased in a vacuum spine board. The doctor tells me that the staff at LRMC removed Wilkins’s breathing tube, but they had to put it back. He remains in cold storage, like some pod-person in a sci-fi film. You can hardly see him in there, inside the black plastic pod. You can’t determine if he is alive or dead without looking at the little needles on the dials of the machines on the SMEED. Are they wavering? Hard to tell.

Flight Risk

The CCAT team has three other critical patients to think about. They are covered with white sheets and blankets, but it’s easy to see that the second patient is missing both legs. His right hand is swathed in thick bandages, almost as fat as a football. His face is ripped and torn so that his features appear to be not quite where they belong, but pushed up and to one side — his nose split and turned askew. He’s sedated and on a ventilator meant to assist his breathing, but his chest convulses as he struggles with the job.

The respiratory therapist hovers, checking monitors, adjusting a breathing tube, and the man quiets. But not for long. The IED blast that took off both his legs above the knee bypassed his pelvis to slam into his chest. He must have been doubled over, crouching, when he walked onto the bomb. The impact damaged his lungs in ways not yet fully understood, so that now when he breathes on his own, every breath costs him more than he has to give.

The CCAT team confers. To stop the convulsive effort to breathe, the doctor can paralyze him and let the ventilator do the work of respiration, but that means removing from his intestine the feeding tube pumping in the calories he needs to heal these catastrophic wounds. It’s a fine line, and the team walks it for the next hour until it’s clear the man needs rest more than nourishment. Then the doctor administers a drug, the body grows still as stone, and the soldier inside sleeps softly while the ventilator steadily breathes in and breathes out.

Patient number three is breathing on his own and fast asleep, a saline drip feeding into his arm. He looks okay, but for the flattening of the blanket under the SMEED. He’s lost both legs, but both below the knee. He has his hands. He has his junk. Of these four patients, he’s the one the military and the media will call “lucky.” But the doctor doesn’t call him that. He says, “You can’t assess his injuries in comparison to those of other soldiers who happen to be on the same plane. You have to assess them in comparison to who he was before.” He is a boy who used to have legs and now he doesn’t.

The fourth CCAT patient is a darkly handsome kid who lost both legs to an IED. His right arm ends in a bulbous bandage, but something about its shape suggests the hand might still be all there. He’s conscious and breathing on his own, vaguely gazing at a thin woman in blond boots and a light jacket who stands next to his litter and clutches at the rail as if to hold herself upright.

She was called to LRMC because her son was close to death, but she is now taking him home, what’s left of him, alive. In the dim light, she looks dazed, but she leans over him and speaks into his ear and soon he sleeps. The doctor tells me that the boy, a Marine, lost one leg below the knee, and the other very high up — too high for him to wear a prosthetic leg.

“He’ll be in a wheel chair,” the doctor says. “It’s doubtful he’ll ever walk. His right arm is all there, but the hand is blasted. He’ll probably lose his fingers at least, but he may have enough of a hand left to power a wheel chair on his own. It’s hard to say. He lost one testicle, too, and part of the penis and urethra. But he could still be fertile. There’s a chance.”

The cavernous plane is very cold. There’s a blanket on each of the seats along the wall. I wrap myself up and sit down next to my military minder Sergeant Julian, mainly to stay out of the way of the CASF nurses who are busy checking on their patients, getting those on the bunks well settled for the long flight. The mother of the handsome kid has also sunk into a seat next to her son’s litter, but she leans forward, still clutching the bedrail as if to hang on to her boy. She has thrown a blanket around her like a cape, but even at a distance I can see that she’s cold. I pick up a spare blanket and take it to her. She looks up as I hold it out to her wordlessly in the deafening plane. “I’m fine,” she says, loudly enough for me to hear.

“Your son?”

“He’s fine.” She looks at him and changes tense. “He’s going to be fine.”

“That’s good,” I say.

“He’s alive. He almost wasn’t, but he’s alive. He’s fine.”

I offer the blanket again. “Take it. Keep warm.”

Later I notice that she has made a cocoon of the blankets and slumped over the adjacent seat to sleep. Only toward the end of the flight, when she must be feeling some relief that her son is going to survive it, does she begin to tell me about him. She got word of his injury when he was still in the field hospital in Helmand Province, and she arrived at LRMC from southern California the same day he was brought in from Bagram. Three days later, miraculously, she is bringing him home. Well, not home really, but to the States anyway, to the Naval hospital at Bethesda, Maryland.

Her son has an older brother who deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and now is safe at home in California. But this boy, a Marine, had a training accident that left him with a head injury requiring brain surgery. He was medically discharged, but reenlisted and was deployed to Afghanistan. He had been there two months when his unit was assigned to clean up an area another unit had officially cleared of Taliban. You remember the policy: clear, hold, and build. They were doing the hold part when he stepped on the IED. The other Marine, the one who can’t breathe, was hit by the same blast, or maybe another one at the same time. “They told me how it happened,” she says, “but I don’t think I heard.”

Months later, I will call her in California to see how her son is getting along. He’s still in the hospital. They’re still working on his wounds. He’s not doing any rehab yet. But the military moved him to San Diego so she and her husband can visit him often. She says he’s doing “fine,” though it will still be many months before he can come home.

In the meantime, her contractor husband has enlisted his friends to help widen doorways, lower light switches, build ramps, and reconstruct a bathroom on the ground floor for a boy in a wheelchair. It’s a weekend and I can hear them hammering as we talk on the phone. “They say he’ll always be in a wheelchair,” she says, her voice shaking. “I was in our pool this morning, and I realized that he’ll never be able to get into it by himself. He loves the pool.” I stay on the line, listening to her cry. She says, “He’s a beautiful swimmer.”

“Everything Still Hurts…”

On the plane I talk to some of the ambulatory patients sitting along the walls, wrapped in blankets like so many Pashtuns. Most are hurt just enough to have to be out of action for a while. One boy got a boot caught in the door of an armored vehicle, an MRAP, that wasn’t moving at the time. It’s a long way down from the passenger seat. He broke his arm. He blurts this out, then tells me he worries about what he’s going to say back at his home base. “I can’t tell them I just fell out.”

Another kid dropped a barbell in the gym and broke some bones in his foot. Two others hadn’t recovered from chronic back pain and muscle spasms induced by carrying too much weight. Doctors sent them back downrange to their units two or three times and each time they broke down again. The painkillers had only left them dazed. One says, “Everything still hurts, and you can’t remember what you’re doing, so it makes you nervous. So now they’re sending me home because I guess maybe the pain doesn’t make you so nervous in the U.S. of A.”

One young man collapsed while jogging at a base in the Persian Gulf. “I need a new valve in my heart,” he says, “so they’re sending me home to get it done there. I’m really lucky they found it. The Army saved my life.” His wife sits beside him, wearing a brand new Frankfurt sweatshirt and a bracelet dripping with gnomes. While the doctors at LRMC assessed her husband’s cardiac function, she went shopping. She tells me confidentially, “I for sure didn’t want to sit around any old hospital.”

An older Army officer calls me over and gestures toward the empty seat by his side. He sits ramrod straight, wrapped in his blanket, and speaks through tight lips as if he fears what might come out of his mouth. “I’ve been in the Army twenty-six years,” he says, “and I can tell you it’s a con.”

He has been an adviser to the chief counterterrorism officer in Iraq. It’s hard even to imagine what’s involved in work like that, but his version of his job description evidently failed to match the official checklist of his boss. He doesn’t think much of military bosses or politicians or Americans in general who send the lowliest 1% to fight wars that make the other 1%, on the high end, “monu-fuckin'-mentally rich.”

He says he’s going home for “psych reasons” caused by “life,” and he is never going to deploy again. He has two sons, 21 and 23, in college, “They won’t have to serve,” he says. “Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself.”

I ask if he has any particular reason to dislike the military so intensely. “War is absurd,” he says. “Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars — it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd.”

TomDispatch regular Ann Jones is the author of a new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over. This article is an excerpt from her new book.

Copyright 2013 Ann Jones

A Trail of Tears

The last time I saw American soldiers in Afghanistan, they were silent. Knocked out by gunfire and explosions that left them grievously injured, as well as drugs administered by medics in the field, they were carried from medevac helicopters into a base hospital to be plugged into machines that would measure how much life they had left to save. They were bloody.  They were missing pieces of themselves. They were quiet.

It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage.  They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski.  They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.

They were so unlike themselves. Or rather, unlike the American soldiers I had first seen in that country. Then, fired up by 9/11, they moved with the aggressive confidence of men high on their macho training and their own advance publicity.

I remember the very first American soldiers I saw in Afghanistan.  It must have been in 2002.  In those days, very few American troops were on the ground in that country — most were being readied for Iraq to fulfill the vainglorious dreams of George W. Bush and Co. — and they were not stationed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but in the countryside, still supposedly searching for Osama bin Laden.

I was in the north, at the historic Dasht-i Shadian stadium near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, watching an afternoon of buzkashi, the traditional Afghan sport in which mounted men, mostly farmers, vie for possession of a dead calf.  The stadium was famous not only for the most fiercely contested buzkashi games in the country, but also for a day during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when local people invited 50 Soviet soldiers to enjoy the spectacle at Dasht-i Shadian and slaughtered them on the spot.

I was seated with Afghan friends in the bleachers when a squad of Americans in full battle gear barged into the dignitaries’ box and interrupted play. Some of them insisted on riding the horses.  At a sign from the local warlord presiding over the games, Afghan riders helped the Americans mount.  They may also have cued their horses to bolt, race away, and dump them in the dirt.

A little stiffly, the soldiers hiked back to the grandstand, took up their rifles, and made a great show of laughing off the incident — of being loud and boisterous “good sports.” But a large audience of poker-faced Afghan men had taken their measure.  A friend said something to me that I never forgot in years after as I watched the “progress” of the war unfold: “They didn’t know what they were getting into.”

The next day, I spotted another squad of American soldiers in the city’s central bazaar.  In the midst of busy shops, they had fanned out in full battle gear in front of a well-known carpet store, dropped to one knee, and assumed the firing position. They aimed their assault rifles at women shoppers clad in the white burqas of Mazar and frozen in place like frightened ghosts.  The Americans were protecting their lieutenant who was inside the store, shopping for a souvenir of his sojourn in this foreign land.

I can’t say exactly when the U.S. military brought that swagger to Kabul. But by 2004 the Americans were there behind the walls of fortified urban bases, behind concrete barriers and gigantic sandbags at armed checkpoints, blocking traffic, and closing thoroughfares. Their convoys were racing at top speed through city streets with machine-gunners on alert in the turrets of their armored vehicles.  Women half-blind under their burqas brought their children to guide them across suddenly dangerous streets.

Enter the Warriors

I had come to Afghanistan to work for those women and children.  In 2002, I started spending winters there, traveling the country but settling in Kabul. Schools long closed by the Taliban were reopening, and I volunteered to help English teachers revive memories of the language they had studied and taught in those schools before the wars swept so much away. I also worked with Afghan women and other internationals — few in number then — to start up organizations and services for women and girls brutalized by war and stunned by long confinement to their homes.  They were emerging silently, like sleepwalkers, to find life as they had once known it long gone. Most of Kabul was gone too, a landscape of rubble left from years of civil war followed by Taliban neglect and then American bombs.

After the Taliban fled those bombs, the first soldiers to patrol the ruined streets of Kabul were members of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force established by the U.N. to safeguard the capital.  Turks, Spaniards, Brits, and others strolled around downtown, wearing berets or caps — no helmets or armor — and walked into shops like casual tourists.  They parked their military vehicles and let kids climb all over them. Afghans seemed to welcome the ISAF soldiers as an inconspicuous but friendly and reassuring presence.

Then they were supplanted by the aggressive Americans. The teachers in my English classes began to ask for help in writing letters to the U.S. military to claim compensation for friends or neighbors whose children had been run over by speeding soldiers.  A teacher asked, “Why do Americans act in this way?”  I had, at the time, no answer for her.

In my work, I found myself embroiled ever more often with those soldiers as I tried to get compensation, if not justice, for Afghans.  As a reporter, I also occasionally felt duty-bound to attend press briefings concocted by Washington’s militarized theorists of a future American-dominated world of global free markets, spreading democracy, and perfect security in the oddly rebranded “homeland.”

The Pentagon prepared PowerPoint presentations cluttered with charts and arrows indicating how everything was ultimately connected to everything else in an insulated circularity of hokum.  Subordinates based in Kabul delivered those talks to American journalists who dutifully took notes and submitted soon-familiar stories about new strategies and tactics, each guaranteed to bring success to Washington’s Afghan War, even as commanding generals came and went year after year.

To American officials back in that homeland, war was clearly a theoretical construct, and victory a matter of dreaming up those winning new strategies, or choosing some from past wars — Iraq, for example, or Vietnam — and then sending in the brash kids I would see in that stadium near Mazar-i-Sharif to carry them out. War was, in short, a business plan encoded in visual graphics.  To Afghans, whose land had already served as the playing field for more than 20 years of Washington’s devastating modern wars, it wasn’t like that at all.

Frankly, I didn’t like the U.S. soldiers I met in those years.  Unlike the ISAF troops, who appeared to be real people in uniforms, the Americans acted like PowerPoint Soldiers (with a capital S), or, as they preferred to be called, Warriors (with a capital W).  What they seldom acted like was real people.  For one thing, they seemed to have been trained to invade the space of any hapless civilian.  They snapped to attention in your face and spat out sentences that splashed your flesh, something they hadn’t learned from their mothers.

In time, though, their canned — and fearful — aggressiveness stirred my sympathy and my curiosity to know something about who they really were, or had been.  So much so that in the summer of 2010, I borrowed body armor from a friend and applied to embed with U.S. soldiers.  At the time, General Stanley McChrystal was massing troops (and journalists) in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan for a well-advertised “decisive” showdown with the insurgency.  I, on the other hand, was permitted to go to a forward operating base in northeast Afghanistan on the Pakistani border where, it was said, nothing was going on.  In fact, American soldiers were “falling” there at a rate that took their commanders by surprise and troubled them.

By the time I arrived, those commanders had become secretive, cloistering themselves behind closed doors — no more PowerPoint presentations offering the press (me) straight-faced assessments of “progress.”

For TomDispatch, I wrote a piece about that base and included one fact that brought me a deluge of outraged email from wives and girlfriends of the Warriors.  It wasn’t my description of the deaths of soldiers that upset them, but my noting that the most common disabling injury on that base was a sprained ankle — the result of jogging in the rocky high-desert terrain. How dare I say such a thing, the women demanded.  It demeaned our nation’s great Warriors. It was an insult to all patriotic Americans.

I learned a lesson from that.  America’s soldiers, when deployed, may no longer be “real people” even to their loved ones.  To girlfriends and wives, left alone at home with bills to pay and kids to raise, they evidently had to be mythic Warriors of historic importance saving the nation even at the sacrifice of their own lives.  Otherwise, what was the point?

Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

And that may be the point: that there wasn’t one, not to this war of choice and revenge, or the one in Iraq either.  There were only kids in uniform, most of whom by that time knew that they hadn’t known what they were getting into, and now were struggling to keep their illusions and themselves alive.  They walked the streets of the base, two by two, battle buddies heading for the DFAC (mess hall), the laundry, the latrine, the gym. They hung out on the Internet and the international phones, in the war and out of it at the same time, until orders came down from somewhere: Washington, Kabul, Bagram, or the map-lined room behind the closed door of the base commander’s office.  As a result, every day while I was on that base, patrols were ordered to drive or walk out into the surrounding mountains where Taliban flags flew. Very often they returned with men missing.

What had happened to those boys who had been there at breakfast in the DFAC? Dead or torn up by a sniper or a roadside bomb, they had been whisked off by helicopters and then… what?

They lodged in my memory.  Unable to forget them, almost a year later, when I was officially not a nosy journalist but a research fellow at a leading university, I again applied for permission to embed in the military.  This time, I asked to follow casualties from that high desert “battle space” to the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, onto a C-17 with the medical teams that accompanied the wounded soldiers to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany — the biggest American hospital outside the United States — then back onto a C-17 to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and in some cases, all the way home.

Over the years, more and more of America’s kids made that medevac journey back to the States. Costsofwar.com has tallied 106,000 Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan or evacuated from those war zones because of accident or disease.  Because so many so-called “invisible wounds” are not diagnosed until after soldiers return home, the true number of wounded must be much higher. Witness the fact that, as of June 2012, 247,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq had been diagnosed by the VA with post-traumatic stress disorder, and as of May 31, 2012, more than 745,000 veterans of those wars had filed disability claims with the Veterans Administration (VA).  Taxpayers have already spent $135 billion on medical and disability payments for the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the long-term medical and disability costs are expected to peak at about midcentury, at an estimated $754 billion.

Then there were the “fallen,” the dead, shipped to Dover Air Base in metal “transfer cases” aboard standard cargo planes. They were transferred to the official military mortuary in ceremonies from which the media, and thus the public, were until 2009 excluded — at least 6,656 of them from Iraq and Afghanistan by February of this year. At least 3,000 private contractors have also been killed in both wars. Add to this list the toll of post-deployment suicides, and soldiers or veterans hooked on addictive opioids pushed by Big Pharma and prescribed by military doctors or VA psychiatrists either to keep them on the job or, after they break down, to “cure” them of their war experiences.

The first veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq returned to the United States 10 years ago in 2003, yet I’ve never spoken to a damaged soldier or a soldier’s family members who thought the care he or she received from the Veterans Administration was anything like appropriate or enough.  By the VA’s own admission, the time it takes to reach a decision on a veteran’s benefits, or simply to offer an appointment, is so long that some vets die while waiting.

So it is that, since their return, untold numbers of soldiers have been looked after by their parents.  I visited a home on the Great Plains where a veteran has lain in his childhood bed, in his mother’s care, for most of the last decade, and another home in New England where a veteran spent the last evening before he took his own life sitting on his father’s lap.

As I followed the sad trail of damaged veterans to write my new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — the Untold Story, I came to see how much they and their families have suffered, like Afghans, from the delusions of this nation’s leaders — many running counter to international law — and of other influential Americans, in and out of the military, more powerful and less accountable than themselves.

Like the soldiers, the country has changed.  Muted now is the braggadocio of the bring-‘em-on decider who started the preemptive process that ate the children of the poor and patriotic.  Now, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, Washington scrambles to make the exit look less like a defeat — or worse, pointless waste.  Most Americans no longer ask what the wars were for.

“Follow the money,” a furious Army officer, near the end of his career, instructed me. I had spent my time with poor kids in search of an honorable future who do the grunt work of America’s military.  They are part of the nation’s lowliest 1%. But as that angry career officer told me, “They only follow orders.” It’s the other 1% at the top who are served by war, the great American engine that powers the transfer of wealth from the public treasury upward and into their pockets. Following that money trail reveals the real point of the chosen conflicts. As that disillusioned officer put it to me, the wars have made those profiteers “monu-fuckin’-mentally rich.” It’s the soldiers and their families who lost out.

Ann Jones has a new book published today: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over.

Copyright 2013 Ann Jones

They Didn’t Know What They Were Getting Into

Will the U.S. still be meddling in Afghanistan 30 years from now?  If history is any guide, the answer is yes.  And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. has been trying to mold that remote land to its own desires, first through an aid “war” in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; then, starting as the 1970s ended, an increasingly bitter and brutally hot proxy war with the Soviets meant to pay them back for supporting America’s enemies during the war in Vietnam.  One bad war leads to another.

From then until the early 1990s, Washington put weapons in the hands of Islamic fundamentalist extremists of all sorts — thought to be natural, devoutly religious allies in the war against “godless communism” — gloated over the Red Army’s defeat and the surprising implosion of the Soviet empire, and then experienced its own catastrophic blowback from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001.  After 50 years of scheming behind the scenes, the U.S. put boots on the ground in 2001 and now, 12 years later, is still fighting there — against some Afghans on behalf of other Afghans while training Afghan troops to take over and fight their countrymen, and others, on their own.

Through it all, the U.S. has always claimed to have the best interests of Afghans at heart — waving at various opportune moments the bright flags of modernization, democracy, education, or the rights of women. Yet today, how many Afghans would choose to roll back the clock to 1950, before the Americans ever dropped in?  After 12 years of direct combat, after 35 years of arming and funding one faction or another, after 60 years of trying to remake Afghanistan to serve American aims, what has it all meant?  If we ever knew, we’ve forgotten. Weary of official reports of progress, Americans tuned out long ago.

Back in 1991, as Steve Coll reports in Ghost Wars, an unnamed CIA agent mentioned the war in Afghanistan to President George H.W. Bush.  Not long before, he had okayed the shipment of Iraqi weaponry captured in the first Gulf War — worth $30 million — to multiple factions of Islamist extremists then battling each other and probably using those secondhand Iraqi arms to destroy Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.  Still, Bush seemed puzzled by the CIA man’s question about the war.  He reportedly asked, “Is that thing still going on?”

Such forgetfulness about wars has, it seems, become an all-American skill.  Certainly, the country has had little trouble forgetting the war in Iraq, and why should Afghanistan be any different?  Sure, the exit from that country is going to take more time and effort. No seacoast, no ships, bad roads, high tolls, IEDs.  Trucking stuff out is problematic; flying it out, wildly expensive, especially since a lot of the things are really, really big. Take MRAPs, for example — that’s Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles — 11,000 of them, weighing 14 tons or more apiece. For that workhorse transport plane, the C-17, a full load of MRAPs numbers only four.

The equipment inventory keeps changing, but estimates run to 100,000 shipping containers and about 50,000 vehicles to be removed by the end of 2014, adding up to more than $36 billion worth of equipment now classified as “retrograde.”  The estimated shipping bill has quickly risen to $6 billion, and like the overall cost of the war, it is sure to keep rising.

Seven billion dollars worth of equipment — about 20% of what the U.S. sent in to that distant land — is simply being torn up, chopped down, split, shredded, stomped, and, when possible, sold off for scrap at pennies a pound.  Toughest to break up are the weighty MRAPs.  Introduced in 2007 at a cost of $1 million apiece to counteract deadly roadside bombs, they were later discovered to be no better at protecting American soldiers than the cheaper vehicles they replaced.  Of the 11,000 shipped to Afghanistan, 2,000 are on the chopping block, leaving a mere 9,000 to be flown to Kuwait, four at a time, and shipped home or “repositioned” elsewhere to await some future enemy.

The military is not exaggerating when it calls this colossal destruction of surplus equipment historic.  A disposal effort on this scale is unprecedented in the annals of the Pentagon. The centerpiece of this demolition derby may be the brand-new, 64,000-square-foot, $34-million, state-of-the art command center completed in Helmand Province just as most U.S. troops left, and now likely to be demolished.  Or the new $45 million facility in Kandahar built as a repair center for armored vehicles, now used for their demolition, and probably destined to follow them. Taxpayers may one day want to ask some questions about such profligate and historic waste, but it’s sure to keep arms manufacturers happy, resupplying the military until we can get ourselves into another full-scale war.

So this exit is a really big job, and that’s without even mentioning the paperwork.  All those exit plans, all the documents to be filed with the Afghan government for permission to export our own equipment, all the fines assessed for missing customs forms (already running to $70 million), all the export fees to be paid, and the bribes to be offered, and the protection money to be slipped to the Taliban so our enemies won’t shoot at the stuff being trucked out.  All that takes time.

But when it comes right down to it, the United States has a surefire way of ending a war, no matter when it actually ends (or doesn’t).  When we say it’s over, it’s over.

Enduring Operation Enduring Freedom

As it happens, things probably won’t be quite so decisively “over” for everybody. Look at Iraq, for example.  The last American troops drove out of Iraq in December 2011, leaving behind a staff of at least 16,000, including 5,000 private security contractors, assigned to the vast $750 million fortress of a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.  That war has now been over for almost two years, the embassy staff is being trimmed, and yet, the drumbeat of news about car bombs, suicide bombers, and the latest rounds of sectarian cleansing has not slackened. Nearly 6,000 Iraqis have been killed so far this year, 1,000 in July alone, making it the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008.  Even Iraqis who lived through the war in their own homes are now fleeing, like millions of Iraqis before them — many the victims of sectarian cleansing practiced during the American-led “surge” of 2007 and now polished to a fine art.  From the foreign diplomatic corps in Baghdad come informal messages that include the words “worse than ever.”

In Afghanistan, too, as the end of a longer war supposedly draws near, the rate at which civilians are being killed has actually picked up, and the numbers of women and children among the civilian dead have risen dramatically.  This week, as the Nation magazine devotes a special issue to a comprehensive study of the civilian death toll in Afghanistan — the painstaking work of Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse — the pace of civilian death seems only to be gaining momentum as if in some morbid race to the finish.

Like Iraqis, Afghans, too, are in flight — fearing the unknown end game to come.  The number of Afghans filing applications for asylum in other countries, rising sharply since 2010, reached 30,000 in 2012. Undocumented thousands flee the country illegally in all sorts of dangerous ways.  Their desperate journeys by land and sea spark controversy in countries they’re aiming for.  It was Afghan boat people who roused the anti-immigrant rhetoric of candidates in the recent Australian elections, revealing a dark side of the national character even as Afghans and others drowned off their shores.  War reverberates, even where you least expect it.

Afghans who remain at home are on edge.  Their immediate focus: the presidential election scheduled for April 5, 2014.  It’s already common knowledge that the number of existing voter cards far exceeds the number of eligible voters, and millions more are being issued to new registrants, making it likely that this presidential contest will be as fraudulent as the last, in 2009, when voter cards were sold by the handful.

With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, the presidential race is either wide open, or — as many believe — already a done deal. In August, Afghan news services reported that Karzai had chaired a meeting with a few of the country’s most powerful warlords to call for the candidacy of Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, intimidator of women in parliament, longtime pal of Osama bin Laden, mentor of al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, likely collaborator in the assassination two days before 9/11 of the Taliban’s greatest opponent, Ahmad Shah Massoud — in short the quintessential untouchable jihadi.

There’s an irony so ludicrous as to be terrible in the thought that while the U.S. supposedly fought this interminable war to insure that al-Qaeda would never again find a haven in Afghanistan, the country’s next president could be the very guy who invited bin Laden to Afghanistan in the first place and became his partner in building al-Qaeda training camps.

Even Karzai, who likes to poke his finger in American eyes, quickly backed away from that insult.  Within hours of the news reports, he announced that he would remain “neutral.”  Americans scarcely seemed to notice, but Afghans noted what Karzai had done in the first place. Now, as Sayyaf and other potential candidates do backroom deals, jockeying for position, Afghans wait anxiously to learn which ones will actually register to run before the October 6th deadline.

The names bandied about are those of the usual suspects: familiar militia commanders from times past, former jihadis, and political hacks. At this writing, a coalition of some of the most powerful are said to be aligning behind former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second to Karzai’s overstuffed ballot boxes in 2009 and declined to take part in a runoff likely to be just as fixed by fraud. One Afghan politico, surveying a recent gathering of likely candidates, expressed to the Washington Post an opinion widely held by Afghans: “These are the people who destroyed our country.  They should all be thrown down a well.”  Beleaguered Afghans have lived through all of this with all of them before.  Sometimes it ends in a crooked election.  Sometimes in a coup.  Once in recent memory, in a civil war that could go into reruns.

Meanwhile, Karzai has also been tampering with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), a government body headed by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Sima Samar, and the most respected public body in the country precisely because it has maintained its independence from government politics. In December 2011, Karzai blocked the AIHRC’s nonpartisan work by allowing the terms of three of its most effective members to expire. Another respected member had been killed earlier in 2011, together with her husband and four children, by a Taliban suicide-bomber reportedly aiming for officials of Xe (formerly Blackwater, now Academi) in a Kabul supermarket. The members Karzai cut loose included Ahmad Nader Nadery, an assiduous researcher of war crimes, largely responsible for a “Mapping Project,” never officially released, that reportedly names prominent warlords and members of Karzai’s government.

After stalling for 18 months, last July Karzai stacked the AIHRC staff with five political cronies unqualified in human rights.  They include an Army general, a member of an Islamist fundamentalist political party, and a mullah who served in the Taliban government, spent three years in the U.S. military prison at Bagram (without being charged), considers Shariah law the best source of human rights legislation, and opposes laws currently on the books that aim to protect women from violence.

In September Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, made a rare personal visit to Kabul to urge Karzai to reconsider his appointments before the AIHRC lost its international “A” rating and donor nations were forced to rethink their aid to a repressive government.  She left with no assurances, repeating her concern that “improvement in human rights” had not merely “peaked” in Afghanistan, but was “in reality waning.”

Down and Out in Afghanistan 

Now that the end of the international occupation approaches, the story of its success is undergoing a peculiar revision. The stunning advances Washington claimed in Afghanistan seem somehow much smaller and so much less impressive.  Education, health care, and human rights, just like the fabled MRAP, have not lived up to their publicity.

For example, Western leaders have taken particular pride in supposed advances in Afghan education since the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, in schools built and students enrolled by the millions. (The U.S. Agency for International Development alone spent $934 million on Afghan education in the last 12 years.)  But UNICEF reports that almost half the “schools” supposedly built or opened have no actual buildings, and in those that do, students double up on seats and share antiquated texts. Teachers are scarce and fewer than a quarter of those now teaching are considered “qualified,” even by Afghanistan’s minimal standards.  Impressive school enrollment figures determine how much money a school gets from the government, but don’t reveal the much smaller numbers of enrollees who actually attend. No more than 10% of students, mostly boys, finish high school. In 2012, according to UNICEF, only half of school-age children went to school at all.

Advances in Afghan health care have been another source of Western donors’ pride. But dramatic claims that 85% of Afghans now have access to basic health care turn out to mean only that something called a “health care facility” exists in 85% of Afghan districts, many of which are enormous.  Tens of thousands of Afghans now have “access” to health care facilities only because they fled their war-torn provinces for refugee camps on the fringes of major cities. The country’s high rates of maternal and infant mortality have slightly improved but remain among the worst in the world. You have to wonder if Washington couldn’t have turned all that MRAP money to better purpose.

As for the advancement of the human rights of women, much ballyhooed by American politicians and others, a report filed by the independent Afghan Rights Monitor in December 2012 tells a more accurate tale.  It describes merely 10 of the many women assassinated in recent years because of their “work and ideals”: “women’s development activists, a doctor, two journalists, a provincial lawmaker, a teacher, and a police officer.”

Assassinated only two weeks ago was a courageous veteran police lieutenant named Nigara, who once stopped a suicide bomber by grabbing him in a bear hug.  Men on a motorcycle shot her in the neck from behind as she stood waiting for a government bus to take her to work.  She was the senior policewoman in Helmand Province, having taken over the duties of her predecessor Islam Bibi, assassinated only three months earlier in the same popular drive-by style.

No Afghan has ever been brought to trial for any of these assassinations, nor does President Karzai ever speak out against them. The government keeps no record of its women employees slain in the course of duty.

Good neighbor Pakistan chose this moment to release from detention at an “undisclosed location” Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, longtime pal of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and formerly his second-in-command.  Karzai campaigned for his release to facilitate the Afghan “peace process,” but now that Baradar is free, his whereabouts are officially unknown.  How do you suppose women in Afghanistan, or girls in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, receive that news?

So that’s the way the war is ending — in waste, destruction, anxiety, conspiracy, and the evaporation of illusory achievements. A thousand diminutions mark the waning of Afghanistan, punctuated by the sudden violent death of women.

But even when the war “ends” and Americans have forgotten it altogether, it won’t be over in Afghanistan. Obama and Karzai continue negotiations toward a bilateral security agreement to allow the U.S. to keep at least 9 of the biggest bases it built and several thousand “trainers” (and undoubtedly special operations forces) in Afghanistan seemingly forever.

It won’t be over in the U.S. either. For American soldiers who took part in it and returned with catastrophic physical and mental injuries, and for their families, the battles are just beginning.

For American taxpayers, the war will continue at least until midcentury. Think of all the families of the dead soldiers to be compensated for their loss, all the wounded with their health care bills, all the brain damaged veterans at the VA.  Think of the ongoing cost of their drugs and prosthetics and benefits. Medical and disability costs alone are projected to reach $754 billion. Not to mention the hefty retirement pay of all those generals who issued all those reports of progress as they so ambitiously fought more than one war leading nowhere.

Then there’s the urgent need to replace all that retrograde equipment, so efficiently trashed, and recruit a whole new army, so that any month now we can start the next war.  Let’s not forget about that.

Ann Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is the author of Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan 2006) and War Is Not Over When It’s Over (Metropolitan 2010), among other books. She wraps up a trilogy on war with publication next month of a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, which Andrew Bacevich has already described this way: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’”

Copyright 2013 Ann Jones

The Forgotten War

Kabul, Afghanistan — Compromise, conflict, or collapse: ask an Afghan what to expect in 2014 and you’re likely to get a scenario that falls under one of those three headings. 2014, of course, is the year of the double whammy in Afghanistan: the next presidential election coupled with the departure of most American and other foreign forces. Many Afghans fear a turn for the worse, while others are no less afraid that everything will stay the same.  Some even think things will get better when the occupying forces leave.  Most predict a more conservative climate, but everyone is quick to say that it’s anybody’s guess.

Only one thing is certain in 2014: it will be a year of American military defeat.  For more than a decade, U.S. forces have fought many types of wars in Afghanistan, from a low-footprint invasion, to multiple surges, to a flirtation with Vietnam-style counterinsurgency, to a ramped-up, gloves-off air war.  And yet, despite all the experiments in styles of war-making, the American military and its coalition partners have ended up in the same place: stalemate, which in a battle with guerrillas means defeat.  For years, a modest-sized, generally unpopular, ragtag set of insurgents has fought the planet’s most heavily armed, technologically advanced military to a standstill, leaving the country shaken and its citizens anxiously imagining the outcome of unpalatable scenarios.

The first, compromise, suggests the possibility of reaching some sort of almost inconceivable power-sharing agreement with multiple insurgent militias.  While Washington presses for negotiations with its designated enemy, “the Taliban,” representatives of President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council, which includes 12 members of the former Taliban government and many sympathizers, are making the rounds to talk disarmament and reconciliation with all the armed insurgent groups that the Afghan intelligence service has identified across the country. There are 1,500 of them.

One member of the Council told me, “It will take a long time before we get to Mullah Omar [the Taliban’s titular leader].  Some of these militias can’t even remember what they’ve been fighting about.”

The second scenario, open conflict, would mean another dreaded round of civil war like the one in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union withdrew in defeat — the one that destroyed the Afghan capital, Kabul, devastated parts of the country, and gave rise to the Taliban.

The third scenario, collapse, sounds so apocalyptic that it’s seldom brought up by Afghans, but it’s implied in the exodus already underway of those citizens who can afford to leave the country.  The departures aren’t dramatic.  There are no helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy with desperate Afghans clamoring to get on board; just a record number of asylum applications in 2011, a year in which, according to official figures, almost 36,000 Afghans were openly looking for a safe place to land, preferably in Europe.  That figure is likely to be at least matched, if not exceeded, when the U.N. releases the complete data for 2012.

In January, I went to Kabul to learn what old friends and current officials are thinking about the critical months ahead.  At the same time, Afghan President Karzai flew to Washington to confer with President Obama.  Their talks seem to have differed radically from the conversations I had with ordinary Afghans. In Kabul, where strange rumors fly, an official reassured me that the future looked bright for the country because Karzai was expected to return from Washington with the promise of American radar systems, presumably for the Afghan Air Force, which is not yet “operational.” (He actually returned with the promise of helicopters, cargo planes, fighter jets, and drones.) Who knew that the fate of the nation and its suffering citizens hinged on that?  In my conversations with ordinary Afghans, one thing that never came up was radar.

Another term that never seems to enter ordinary Afghan conversation, much as it obsesses Americans, is “al-Qaeda.” President Obama, for instance, announced at a joint press conference with President Karzai: “Our core objective — the reason we went to war in the first place — is now within reach: ensuring that al-Qaeda can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against America.”  An Afghan journalist asked me, “Why does he worry so much about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Doesn’t he know they are everywhere else?”

At the same Washington press conference, Obama said, “The nation we need to rebuild is our own.” Afghans long ago gave up waiting for the U.S. to make good on its promises to rebuild theirs. What’s now striking, however, is the vast gulf between the pronouncements of American officialdom and the hopes of ordinary Afghans.  It’s a gap so wide you would hardly think — as Afghans once did — that we are fighting for them.

To take just one example: the official American view of events in Afghanistan is wonderfully black and white.  The president, for instance, speaks of the way U.S. forces heroically “pushed the Taliban out of their strongholds.” Like other top U.S. officials over the years, he forgets whom we pushed into the Afghan government, our “stronghold” in the years after the 2001 invasion: ex-Taliban and Taliban-like fundamentalists, the most brutal civil warriors, and serial human rights violators.

Afghans, however, haven’t forgotten just whom the U.S. put in place to govern them — exactly the men they feared and hated most in exactly the place where few Afghans wanted them to be.  Early on, between 2002 and 2004, 90% of Afghans surveyed nationwide told the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission that such men should not be allowed to hold public office; 76% wanted them tried as war criminals.

In my recent conversations, many Afghans still cited the first loya jirga, an assembly convened in 2003 to ratify the newly drafted constitution, or the first presidential election in 2004, or the parliamentary election of 2005, all held under international auspices, as the moments when the aspirations of Afghans and the “international community” parted company. In that first parliament, as in the earlier gatherings, most of the men were affiliated with armed militias; every other member was a former jihadi, and nearly half were affiliated with fundamentalist Islamist parties, including the Taliban.

In this way, Afghans were consigned to live under a government of bloodstained warlords and fundamentalists, who turned out to be Washington’s guys.  Many had once battled the Soviets using American money and weapons, and quite a few, like the former warlord, druglord, minister of defense, and current vice-president Muhammad Qasim Fahim, had been very chummy with the CIA.

In the U.S., such details of our Afghan War, now in its 12th year, are long forgotten, but to Afghans who live under the rule of the same old suspects, the memory remains painfully raw.  Worse, Afghans know that it is these very men, rearmed and ready, who will once again compete for power in 2014.

How to Vote Early in Afghanistan

President Karzai is barred by term limits from standing for reelection in 2014, but many Kabulis believe he reached a private agreement with the usual suspects at a meeting late last year. In early January, he seemed to seal the deal by announcing that, for the sake of frugality, the voter cards issued for past elections will be reused in 2014.  Far too many of those cards were issued for the 2004 election, suspiciously more than the number of eligible voters.  During the 2009 campaign, anyone could buy fistfuls of them at bargain basement prices.  So this decision seemed to kill off the last faint hope of an election in which Afghans might actually have a say about the leadership of the country.

Fewer than 35% of voters cast ballots in the last presidential contest, when Karzai’s men were caught on video stuffing ballot boxes.  (Afterward, President Obama phoned to congratulate Karzai on his “victory.”) Only dedicated or paid henchmen are likely to show up for the next “good enough for Afghans” exercise in democracy. Once again, an “election” may be just the elaborate stage set for announcing to a disillusioned public the names of those who will run the show in Kabul for the next few years.

Kabulis might live with that, as they’ve lived with Karzai all these years, but they fear power-hungry Afghan politicians could “compromise” as well with insurgent leaders like that old American favorite from the war against the Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who recently told a TV audience that he intends to claim his rightful place in government. Such compromises could stick the Afghan people with a shaky power-sharing deal among the most ultra-conservative, self-interested, sociopathic, and corrupt men in the country.  If that deal, in turn, were to fall apart, as most power-sharing agreements worldwide do within a year or two, the big men might well plunge the country back into a 1990s-style civil war, with no regard for the civilians caught in their path.

These worst-case scenarios are everyday Kabuli nightmares.  After all, during decades of war, the savvy citizens of the capital have learned to expect the worst from the men currently characterized in a popular local graffiti this way: “Mujahideen=Criminals. Taliban=Dumbheads.”

Ordinary Kabulis express reasonable fears for the future of the country, but impatient free-marketeering businessmen are voting with their feet right now, or laying plans to leave soon. They’ve made Kabul hum (often with foreign aid funds, which are equivalent to about 90% of the country’s economic activity), but they aren’t about to wait around for the results of election 2014.  Carpe diem has become their version of financial advice.  As a result, they are snatching what they can and packing their bags.

Millions of dollars reportedly take flight from Kabul International Airport every day: officially about $4.6 billion in 2011, or just about the size of Afghanistan’s annual budget. Hordes of businessmen and bankers (like those who, in 2004, set up the Ponzi scheme called the Kabul Bank, from which about a billion dollars went missing) are heading for cushy spots like Dubai, where they have already established residence on prime real estate.

As they take their investments elsewhere and the American effort winds down, the Afghan economy contracts ever more grimly, opportunities dwindle, and jobs disappear.  Housing prices in Kabul are falling for the first time since the start of the occupation as rich Afghans and profiteering private American contractors, who guzzled the money that Washington and the “international community” poured into the country, move on.

At the same time, a money-laundering building boom in Kabul appears to have stalled, leaving tall, half-built office blocks like so many skeletons amid the scalloped Pakistani palaces, vertical malls, and grand madrassas erected in the past four or five years by political and business insiders and well-connected conservative clerics.

Most of the Afghan tycoons seeking asylum elsewhere don’t fear for their lives, just their pocketbooks: they’re not political refugees, but free-market rats abandoning the sinking ship of state.  Joining in the exodus (but not included in the statistics) are countless illegal émigrés seeking jobs or fleeing for their lives, paying human smugglers money they can’t afford as they head for Europe by circuitous and dangerous routes.

Threatened Afghans have fled from every abrupt change of government in the last century, making them the largest population of refugees from a single country on the planet.  Once again, those who can are voting with their feet (or their pocketbooks) — and voting early.

Afghanistan’s historic tragedy is that its violent political shifts — from king to communists to warlords to religious fundamentalists to the Americans — have meant the flight of the very people most capable of rebuilding the country along peaceful and prosperous lines.  And their departure only contributes to the economic and political collapse they themselves seek to avoid.  Left behind are ordinary Afghans — the illiterate and unskilled, but also a tough core of educated, ambitious citizens, including women’s rights activists, unwilling to surrender their dream of living once again in a free and peaceful Afghanistan.

The Military Monster

These days Kabul resounds with the blasts of suicide bombers, IEDs, and sporadic gunfire.  Armed men are everywhere in anonymous uniforms that defy identification.  Any man with money can buy a squad of bodyguards, clad in classy camouflage and wraparound shades, and armed with assault weapons.  Yet Kabulis, trying to carry on normal lives in the relative safety of the capital, seem to maintain a distance from the war going on in the provinces.

Asked that crucial question — do you think American forces should stay or go? — the Kabulis I talked with tended to answer in a theoretical way, very unlike the visceral response one gets in the countryside, where villages are bombed and civilians killed, or in the makeshift camps for internally displaced people that now crowd the outer fringes of Kabul. (By the time U.S. Marines surged into Taliban-controlled Helmand Province in the south in 2010 to bring counterinsurgency-style protection to the residents there, tens of thousands of them had already moved to those camps in Kabul.)  Afghans in the countryside want to be rid of armed men.  All of them.  Kabulis just want to be secure, and if that means keeping some U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base near the capital, as Afghan and American officials are currently discussing, well, it’s nothing to them.

In fact, most Kabulis I spoke to think that’s what’s going to happen.  After all, American officials have been talking for years about keeping permanent bases in Afghanistan (though they avoid the term “permanent” when speaking to the American press), and American military officers now regularly appear on Afghan TV to say, “The United States will never abandon Afghanistan.”  Afghans reason: Americans would not have spent nearly 12 years fighting in this country if it were not the most strategic place on the planet and absolutely essential to their plans to “push on” Iran and China next.  Everybody knows that pushing on other countries is an American specialty.

Besides, Afghans can see with their own eyes that U.S. command centers, including multiple bases in Kabul, and Bagram Air Base, only 30 miles away, are still being expanded and upgraded.  Beyond the high walls of the American Embassy compound, they can also see the tall new apartment blocks going up for an expanding staff, even if Washington now claims that staff will be reduced in the years to come.

Why, then, would President Obama announce the drawdown of U.S. troops to perhaps a few thousand special operations forces and advisors, if Washington didn’t mean to leave?  Afghans have a theory about that, too.  It’s a ruse, many claim, to encourage all other foreign forces to depart so that the Americans can have everything to themselves.  Afghanistan, as they imagine it, is so important that the U.S., which has fought the longest war in its history there, will be satisfied with nothing less.

I was there to listen, but at times I did mention to Afghans that America’s post-9/11 wars and occupations were threatening to break the country.  “We just can’t afford this war anymore,” I said.

Afghans only laugh at that.  They’ve seen the way Americans throw money around.  They’ve seen the way American money corrupted the Afghan government, and many reminded me that American politicians like Afghan ones are bought and sold, and its elections won by money. Americans, they know, are as rich as Croesus and very friendly, though on the whole not very well mannered or honest or smart.

Operation Enduring Presence      

More than 11 years later, the tragedy of the American war in Afghanistan is simple enough: it has proven remarkably irrelevant to the lives of the Afghan people — and to American troops as well.  Washington has long appeared to be fighting its own war in defense of a form of government and a set of long-discredited government officials that ordinary Afghans would never have chosen for themselves and have no power to replace.

In the early years of the war (2001-2005), George W. Bush’s administration was far too distracted planning and launching another war in Iraq to maintain anything but a minimal military presence in Afghanistan — and that mainly outside the capital.  Many journalists (including me) criticized Bush for not finishing the war he started there when he had the chance, but today Kabulis look back on that soldierless period of peace and hope with a certain nostalgia.  In some quarters, the Bush years have even acquired something like the sheen of a lost Golden Age — compared, that is, to the thoroughgoing militarization of American policy that followed.

So commanding did the U.S. military become in Kabul and Washington that, over the years, it ate the State Department, gobbled up the incompetent bureaucracy of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and established Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the countryside to carry out maniacal “development” projects and throw bales of cash at all the wrong “leaders.”

Of course, the military also killed a great many people, both “enemies” and civilians.  As in Vietnam, it won the battles, but lost the war.  When I asked Afghans from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north how they accounted for the relative peacefulness and stability of their area, the answer seemed self-evident: “Americans didn’t come here.”

Other consequences, all deleterious, flowed from the militarization of foreign policy.  In Afghanistan and the United States, so intimately ensnarled over all these years, the income gap between the rich and everyone else has grown exponentially, in large part because in both countries the rich have made money off war-making, while ordinary citizens have slipped into poverty for lack of jobs and basic services.

Relying on the military, the U.S. neglected the crucial elements of civil life in Afghanistan that make things bearable — like education and health care.  Yes, I’ve heard the repeated claims that, thanks to us, millions of children are now attending school.  But for how long?   According to UNICEF, in the years 2005-2010, in the whole of Afghanistan only 18% of boys attended high school, and 6% of girls.  What kind of report card is that?  After 11 years of underfunded work on health care in a country the size of Texas, infant mortality still remains the highest in the world.

By 2014, the defense of Afghanistan will have been handed over to the woeful Afghan National Security Force, also known in military-speak as the “Enduring Presence Force.”  In that year, for Washington, the American war will be officially over, whether it’s actually at an end or not, and it will be up to Afghans to do the enduring.

Here’s where that final scenario — collapse — haunts the Kabuli imagination.  Economic collapse means joblessness, poverty, hunger, and a great swelling of the ranks of children cadging a living in the streets.  Already street children are said to number a million strong in Kabul, and 4 million across the country.  Only blocks from the Presidential Palace, they are there in startling numbers selling newspapers, phone cards, toilet paper, or simply begging for small change. Are they the county’s future?

And if the state collapses, too?  Afghans of a certain age remember well the last time the country was left on its own, after the Soviets departed in 1989, and the U.S. also terminated its covert aid.  The mujahideen parties — Islamists all — agreed to take turns ruling the country, but things soon fell apart and they took turns instead lobbing rockets into Kabul, killing tens of thousands of civilians, reducing entire districts to rubble, raiding and raping — until the Taliban came up from the south and put a stop to everything.

Afghan civilians who remember that era hope that this time Karzai will step down as he promises, and that the usual suspects will find ways to maintain traditional power balances, however undemocratic, in something that passes for peace.  Afghan civilians are, however, betting that if a collision comes, one-third of those Afghan Security Forces trained at fabulous expense to protect them will fight for the government (whoever that may be), one-third will fight for the opposition, and one-third will simply desert and go home.  That sounds almost like a plan.

Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan 2006) and more recently War Is Not Over When It’s Over (Metropolitan 2010).  She wants to acknowledge the courage and determination of all her friends in Afghanistan, especially the women, and the men who stand beside them.

Copyright 2013 Ann Jones

Counting Down to 2014 in Afghanistan

Recent weeks have brought yet another sad chance to watch badly laid plans in Afghanistan go haywire.  In three separate incidents, allies, most from the Afghan National Army (ANA), allegedly murdered six Americans — two of them officers in the high-security sanctum of Kabul’s Interior Ministry.  Marine General John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, even briefly withdrew NATO advisors and trainers from all government ministries for their own protection.

Until that moment, the Afghan National Army was the crown jewel of the Obama administration’s strategy for drawing down forces in Afghanistan (without really leaving).  Trained in their hundreds of thousands over the past 11 years by a horde of dodgy private security contractors, as well as U.S. and NATO troops, the Afghan National Army is supposed to replace coalition forces any day now and defend its own country.

This policy has been the apex of Washington’s Plan A for some time now.  There is no Plan B.

But what to make of the murders in the Ministry?  An AP article headlined “Acts of Afghan Betrayal Are Poisoning U.S. War Plan” detected “a trend of Afghan treachery.”  This “poisoning” is, however, nothing new.  Military lingo has already long defined assaults on American and NATO soldiers by members of the Afghan National Security Force (a combination of the ANA and the Afghan National Police) as “green on blue incidents.” Since the military started recording them in May 2007, 76 NATO soldiers have been killed and an undisclosed number wounded in 46 recorded “deliberate attacks.”

These figures suggest more than a recent “trend of Afghan treachery” (though Afghans are increasingly blamed for everything that goes wrong in their country).  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who perversely called the latest green on blue incidents signs of Taliban “weakness,” told the press: “I’ve made clear and I will continue to make clear that, regardless of what the enemy tries to do to us, we are not going to alter our strategy in Afghanistan.”

This is, of course, the definition of paralysis in Afghanistan, so much easier in the short term than reexamining Plan A.  In other words, as the American exercise in Afghanistan rolls ever closer to the full belly-up position, Plan A remains rigidly in place, and signals that, from Secretary Panetta and General Allen on down, Americans still don’t seem to get what’s going on.

Beware an Afghan Army

Many people who know Afghanistan well, however, have warned from the beginning against this plan to train up an armed force.  I’m among the naysayers, and I’ll tell you why.

First, consider what the plan proposes. The number of Afghan soldiers and police to be trained varies widely from one report to the next, but the last estimate I received directly from the Kabul Military Training Center called for 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police (who, incidentally, are also called “soldiers” and trained in a similar manner).  That brings the total proposed Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to approximately four times the number of current coalition troops in the country.

It costs the U.S. $12 billion annually to train the army alone and the estimated cost of maintaining it beyond 2014 is $4 billion per year, of which the Afghan government says it can pay no more than 12%.  Clearly, Afghanistan does not need and cannot sustain such a security force.  Instead, the United States will be stuck with the bill, hoping for help from NATO allies — until the force falls apart.  How then did this security force become the centerpiece of the Obama plan?  And given its obvious absurdity, why is it written in stone?

Second, take just a moment to do something Washington has long been adverse to — review a little basic Afghan history as it applies to Plan A.  Start with the simplest of all facts: in the country’s modern history, no Afghan national army has ever saved a government, or even tried.  More often, such an army has either sat on its hands during a coup d’état or actually helped to overthrow the incumbent ruler.

Go back nearly a century to the reign of King Amanullah (1919-1929), a modernizing ruler who wrote a constitution, established a national assembly, founded girls’ schools, taxed polygamous husbands, and banned conservative mullahs from the country because they might be “bad and evil persons” spreading treacherous foreign propaganda. In 1928, he returned to Afghanistan with his Queen Suraya, who wore European dresses and no veil, from a round of visits to European rulers, bringing guns for his army (though his soldiers would be billed for them) and announced a new agenda of revolutionary reforms. He got a revolution instead, and here’s the important point: his newly weaponized army lifted not a finger to save him.

Amanullah’s successor, an ex-bandit known as Bacha-i Saqqa, lasted only eight months in office before his successor, Nadir Shah, had him hanged, again without intervention from the Afghan army.  Nadir Shah in turn reigned from 1929 to 1933, and although he, like Barack Obama, tried to build up the national army, that force of 40,000 men couldn’t help him when he was assassinated by a schoolboy at a high school graduation ceremony.

From 1933 to 1973, Nadir Shah’s son, Zahir Shah, presided over gradual social progress. He introduced a new constitution, free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights, and universal suffrage.   During his long peaceful reign, his professional spit-and-polish army served him very well on ceremonial occasions. (This is the same popular king who, after the Taliban fell, offered to return and reunite the country; Bush turned him down.)

In 1973, when Zahir Shah went to Italy for medical care, his cousin Daoud Khan — a general, former Commander of the Central Forces, and Minister of Defense — abolished the monarchy and assumed power with the aid of young communists in a bloodless coup.  The army was in his pocket, but five years later, in 1978, it fell apart and fought on both sides as the communists overthrew and murdered Daoud.  The fractured army could not prevent the Soviet invasion, nor safeguard any of the presidents in power before they came or after they left.

It’s worth remembering, too, that every one of these shifts in power was followed by a purge of political enemies that sent thousands of Afghans loyal to the jettisoned ruler to prison, death, or another country in the prolonged exodus that has made the Afghan diaspora the largest in the world drawn from a single country.  That diaspora continues today — 30,000 Afghans fled last year and applied for asylum elsewhere — and the next purge hasn’t even gotten underway yet.

In short, Afghan history is a sobering antidote to the relentless optimism of the American military.  Modern Afghan history indicates that no Afghan National Army of any size or set of skills has ever warded off a single foreign enemy or done a lick of good for any Afghan ruler.

As for those Afghan guys who whipped the British three times and the Soviet’s Red Army, they were mostly freelancers, attached to the improvised militias of assorted warlords, fighting voluntarily against invaders who had occupied their country.  The Taliban, like the mujahidin of the anti-Soviet struggle before them, seem to fight quite successfully without any significant training, armor, or heavy equipment to speak of, except what some Taliban snatch by signing up from time to time for basic training with the ANA (or buy from ANA soldiers).

The Afghan National Game

Another objection to spending billions on training an Afghan National Army is this: you never know whom they will shoot.  The problem is not the odd rogue soldier or Talib infiltrator.  The problem is that the Afghan moral code is different from ours, though still apparently invisible to our military and political leaders.

Many years ago, an American Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan fell in love with the place and went sort of rogue himself.  Whitney Azoy resigned to become an anthropologist and in 1982 published an enchanting scholarly book about the Afghan sport of buzkashi, in which mounted horsemen vie for possession of a dead goat or calf.

His book became a bible for visiting journalists who soon made a cliché of the game, comparing the dead goat to the country of Afghanistan, torn apart throughout its history by competing foreign powers: England and Russia, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Pakistan. Journalists compared the game to polo, apparently never having seen a game of polo.  Take my word for it: it is not like polo.  Anyway, that’s not the point.

What many missed is the bigger picture: that all the chapandazan (horsemen) ride for a sponsor, who may be the wealthy landowning host of the day’s competition, or perhaps another large landowner living some distance away.  Chapandazan compete not for the calf, but for the favor of the sponsoring khan who will bestow upon the winners the turban cloths that mark their public stature and the money that will support their families. Here’s the point: if a sponsor fails in his obligations — if he loses the ability and wherewithal to honor, protect, and support his chapandazan — they will switch to the man who can.

In short, for their own safety and advancement, Afghans back a winner, and if he goes into decline, they ditch him for a rising star.  To spot that winner is the mark of the intelligent survivor.  To stick loyally to a losing cause, as any patriotic American would do, seems to an Afghan downright stupid.

Now, apply this to the ANA as American and NATO troops draw down in 2014.  Any army intended to defend a nation must be loyal to the political leaders governing the country.  Estimates among Afghan experts of how long the ANA would be loyal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai start at two weeks, and remember, 2014 is a presidential election year, with Karzai barred by the constitution from seeking another term.  In other words, Obama’s Plan A calls for urgently building up a national army to defend a government that will not exist before our own combat troops leave the country.

And if that election is riddled with fraud, as the last one was?  Or inconclusive?  Or violently contested?  Has President Obama or Secretary of Defense Panetta or anyone else given any thought to that?

These days, as Afghan men, mostly in army and police uniforms, shoot and kill NATO soldiers on a remarkably regular basis, the American military still publicly writes off the deaths as “isolated incidents.”

But the isolation may be an American one.  The connections among Afghans are evident to anyone who cares to look.  When I was at a forward operating base with the U.S. Army in Kunar province in 2010, for instance, Afghan soldiers were relegated to an old base next door.  Armed American soldiers guarded the gate in between, and ANA leaders were shadowed everywhere by an armed U.S. sergeant who tried unconvincingly to give the impression he was just out for a stroll.  What struck me most was this: while the Americans on their base recoiled under daily Taliban shelling, the Afghan watchman at the nearby ANA post, perhaps privy to some additional information, slept peacefully on a cot on the roof of his office with his teakettle by his side.  The military has long called this a “partnership.”

But now the numbers are adding up to something else entirely. While some commentators speak of Afghan treachery and others detect a Taliban plot to infiltrate the security forces, I suspect something quite different.  Malcolm Gladwell might call it a tipping point.  What we are watching unfold in Afghanistan is the desertion of chapandazan who have already found a new khans.

Security Force: An Oxymoron

All along, however, I’ve had a bigger objection to spending tens of billions of dollars training a vast Afghan National Security Force.  And it couldn’t be more basic: armies and war are never good for women, children, or civilians in general.

To redeem the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan and improve the quality of life of its people, we should have invested early, under Afghan guidance, in electricity, clean water, and sanitation. After two decades of almost constant war and civil war, we should have demined the precious fields in this agricultural country and supported Afghan farmers and laborers as they tried to repair crucial bombed-out irrigation systems.  These measures were never jobs for the U.S. military, but they might have won peace and saved soldiers’ lives in the bargain. After all, soldiers have actually died by falling into broken irrigation tunnels and wells, even more by treading on mines.

Note, too, that the expense of training and supporting soldiers to wage war is bad for both sides.  The trillions spent on our own forces and weapons systems is money we might have spent to improve the quality of American lives.  And keep in mind that the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will not peak until mid-century, so expensive is the lifelong aftercare of our own ruined soldiers.

To keep the chapandazan, or the Afghan people and their problematic army, on your side, you have to offer the symbols and substance of normal life.  But being Americans, we think that “national security” means armies and night vision goggles and drones and “strategic partnerships,” even with a reluctant, exhausted, angry, and grief-stricken people.

To the normal world — that is, the world not in thrall to American militarism — “national security” means something quite different.  It means all those big and little things that enable people to feel relatively calm and cared for in their daily lives.  That would be food, water, shelter, jobs, health care, schools for the kids, domestic police to keep the peace, and maybe even some firefighters — all those things we fail to attend to there, or increasingly here.

As things stand today, as International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world, women in Afghanistan contemplate the withdrawal of some American and NATO troops with both relief and fear.  They fear the Taliban.  They fear President Karzai’s endorsement of new, Taliban-like (and unconstitutional) “guidelines” for women that would confine them again.  They fear the Afghan National Army, the heroes of Plan A, and the countless thousands of deserters who joined up to get a gun and went home.

Civilians live in dread of the legacy of the Obama strategy: the presence of half a million gunmen on the loose, in search of a sponsoring khan.

Ann Jones is the author most recently of Kabul in Winter (2006) and War Is Not Over When It’s Over (2010), both published by Metropolitan. A TomDispatch regular, she is working, with support from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, on a book about soldiers who bring the wars home.

Copyright 2012 Ann Jones

Green on Blue

Where did I go wrong? Was it playing percussion with an Occupy Wall Street band in Times Square when I was in New York recently? Or was it when I returned to my peaceful new home in Oslo and deleted an email invitation to hear Newt Gingrich lecture Norwegians on the American election? (Yes, even here.)

I don’t know how it happened. Or even, really, what happened. Or what it means.  So I’ve got no point — only a lot of anxiety. I usually write about the problems of the world, but now I’ve got one of my own. They evidently think I’m a terrorist.

That is, someone in the U.S. government who specializes in finding terrorists seems to have found me and laid a heavy hand on my bank account. I think this is wrong, of course, but try to tell that to a faceless, acronymic government agency.

It all started with a series of messages from my bank: Citibank. Yeah, I know, I should have moved my money long ago, but in the distant past before Citibank became Citigroup, it was my friendly little neighborhood bank, and I guess I’m in a rut. Besides, I learned when I made plans to move to Norway that if your money is in a small bank, it has to be sent to a big bank like Citibank or Chase to wire it to you when you need it, which meant I was trapped anyway.

So the first thing I noticed was that one of those wires with money I needed never arrived. When I politely inquired, Citibank told me that the transaction hadn’t gone through. Why not? All my fault, they insisted, for not having provided complete information. Long story short: we went round and round for a couple of weeks, as I coughed up ever more morsels of previously unsolicited personal information. Only then did a bit of truth emerge.

The bank wasn’t actually holding up the delivery of the money. The funds had, in fact, left my account weeks before, along with a wire transfer fee. The responsible party was OFAC.

Oh what? I wondered. OFAC. It rhymes with Oh-Tack, but you’ve got to watch how you pronounce it. Speak carelessly and the name sounds like just what you might say upon learning that you’ve been sucked into the ultimate top-secret bureaucratic sinkhole. It turns out, the bank informs me, that OFAC is a division of the U.S. Treasury Department that “reviews” transactions.

“Why me?” I ask. As a long-time reporter I find it a strange question, as strange as finding myself working on a story about me.

By way of an answer, the bank refers me to an Internet link that calls up a 521-page report so densely typed it looks like wallpaper. Entitled “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons,” it turns out to be a list of what seems to be every Muslim business and social organization on the planet.  That’s when I Google OFAC, go to its site, and find out that the acronym stands for the Office of Foreign Assets Control. 

Its mission description reads chillingly. It “administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.”  And it turns out to be a subsidiary of something much bigger that goes by the unnerving name of “Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.” 

Off With Her Head

Whoa!  Perhaps it doesn’t help, at this moment, that I’ve just been reading Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, the scary new book by Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin about our multiple, overfed, overzealous, highly-classified intelligence agencies, staffed in significant part not by civil servants but by profit-making private contractors.  Suddenly, I feel myself in the grip of the national post-9/11 paranoia that hatched all that new “security.”  (And you, too, could find yourself in my shoes fast.)

I check OFAC’s list more carefully.  It’s in a kind of alphabetical order, but with significant incomprehensible diversions — and if my name is there, I sure can’t find it.  Since I’ve spent most of the last decade working with international aid organizations as well as reporting from some of the more strife-ridden lands on the planet, including Afghanistan, the only thing I can imagine is that maybe all those odd visas in my fat passport raised a red flag somewhere in Washington.

Next, I search for the name of my Norwegian landlady.  Did I say that the wired funds that never arrived were meant to pay her my rent?  She’s in India, a volunteer health-care worker with Tibetan refugees, currently helping refurbish an orphanage for 144 kids.  (What could be more suspicious than that?)  I can’t find her name either.  No Anns or Heidis at all, in fact, among the raft of Mohammads and Abduls.

Heidi is a Buddhist.  I’m an atheist.  Almost everybody on the list seems to be Muslim, including really dangerous-sounding guys like “Ahmed the Egyptian.”  But I guess that to a truly committed and well-paid terrorist hunter, we must all look alike.

I’m desperate to get the rent to Heidi so she can cover her own expenses as a volunteer; an international organization pays for the children’s needs, but Heidi does the work.  So I call the American Embassy in Oslo and speak to a nice young woman in the section devoted to “American Citizen Services.”   I tell her about me and OFAC and Ahmed the Egyptian.  She says, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.  But there are so many of these intelligence offices now, I guess I’ll be hearing these stories more often.”  (Maybe she’s been reading Top Secret America, too.)

She takes it up with her superiors and calls me back.  The Embassy can’t help me, citizen or not, she says, because they don’t handle money matters and have nothing to do with the Treasury Department. 

“What?  The State Department doesn’t deal with the Treasury?” 

“No,” she says,  “I guess not.” 

Perhaps since I last paid attention the Treasury stopped being considered part of the government.  Maybe it now belongs to Lockheed Martin.

At least the State Department has some compassion left in it.  If I’m really destitute, she assures me, the Embassy might be able to give me a loan to pay for a plane ticket that would get my two cats and me back to the States.  I guess it doesn’t occur to her that under the circumstances I might feel more secure in Norway. 

Down the Rabbit Hole

Still, all I want to do is clear up this mess, so I put my head in the lion’s mouth and send an email directly to OFAC.  I tell them that I’m in Norway for the year on a Fulbright grant as a researcher — that is, as part of an international exchange program founded by a U.S. Senator and sponsored by the U.S. Government, or at least one part of the State Department part of it.  Among my informal responsibilities, I add, is to be a goodwill ambassador for the United States, but I’m finding it really hard to explain to Norwegians that I can’t pay my rent because a bunch of terrorist-trackers in the pay of my government have made off with the money and left nothing behind but a list of Muslim names.

Remarkably quickly OFAC itself writes back, giving me the creepy feeling that it was lurking behind the door the whole time.  It is sorry that I am “frustrated.”  It will help me, but only if I supply a whole long list of information, mostly the same stuff I have already provided three times to the bank, the same information the bank later said wasn’t the issue after all. (Still later, the bank would say that I had given not too little information, but too much.)  I send the requested tidbits back to “Dear OFAC Functionary or Machine as the case may be.”

Two days later comes another message from OFAC, this time signed by “Michael Z.”  Like Afghans, or spies, he evidently has only one name, but my hopes that he might be an actual person inexplicably rise anyway — only to sink again when he claims OFAC needs yet more information.  All this so that Michael Z., presumed person, may help me “more effectively.”  (More than what, I wonder?)  He is, he insists, trying to locate my money with the help of my bank, which by the way is now blocking me from seeing information about my own account online. 

It seems odd to me that this top-secret office of Financial Intelligence somehow can’t manage to lay hands on the money it snatched from me, but what do I know?  I’m just a citizen.

Then — are you ready for this? — comes what should be a happy ending.  A message from the bank tells me that the money has slipped through after all, and sure enough there it is at last in a Norwegian bank, only a month late.  I won’t be evicted after all, and Heidi will make sure those Tibetan kids get some fresh fruit and brand new bright green curtains.

Still, this is not a cheery story. So I have to send my apologies to the long-dead Senator J. William Fulbright:  I’m sorry indeed that certain changes in the spirit and operations of the United States have occurred since that day in 1948 when you launched your farsighted program of grants to encourage open international educational and cultural exchange. And I apologize that some of those changes may have temporarily cramped my style as a goodwill ambassador; I’ll try to get back on the job if I can just figure out what hit me.

Was this all simply a mistake?  A technical glitch?  An error at the bank?  I’d like to think so, but what about that list of “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons”? Why was I directed to that? And what about Michael Z., who presumably is some kind of intelligence analyst at OFAC and who, when last heard from, was still seeking information and trying to find the money?

Frankly, this month-long struggle has left me mighty tired and uneasy.  Right now, Senator Fulbright, I’m lying low, down here at the bottom of the rabbit hole, trying to make sense of things. (I took a last look at the “Blocked Persons” list, and just this week it’s grown by another page.)  So I want to tell you the truth, Senator, and I think that with your great interest in peaceable international relations, you just may understand.  Strange as it may seem, since I’ve been hunkered down here in the rabbit hole, I’ve worked up some sympathy for Ahmed the Egyptian who, I have a sneaking feeling, could be down here, too. It’s hard to tell when you’re kept in the dark, but maybe he’s just another poor sap like me, snarled in the super-secret security machine. 

Ann Jones is in Norway under the auspices of the Fulbright Scholar Program, researching the Norwegian economic, social, and cultural arrangements that cause it to be named consistently by the United Nations as the best place to live on earth.  A TomDispatch regular, she is the author of Kabul in Winter (2006) and War Is Not Over When It’s Over (2010).

Copyright 2011 Ann Jones

Me and OFAC and Ahmed the Egyptian